Most Americans over 20 can remember when empty soft drink bottles were returned in a carton to the corner grocer to continue their circular cycle of “fill it, drink it, return it, sterilize it, fill it again.” And while this is standard practice in many sustainability-minded European countries such as Germany, it is a practice now lost on Americans – much like when empty milk bottles were left outside the kitchen door to be picked up with the next delivery to make their way back to the dairy.
Now, frustrated by the fact that three out of every five glass wine bottles end up in landfills and additionally lured by the popularity of sustainability, American wine industry entrepreneurs are working to financially disrupt the status quo by initiating systems where wine bottles are returned and reused several times. Although the obstacles are numerous, two New York-based companies are having promising success implementing two vastly different business models.
The Gotham Project, pioneers of on-tap wine for the past ten years, directly sources its wines in 24,000 litre flexible tanks from producers in Europe, South America and the US. They then transfer the wine to reusable bottles under the producer’s label and distribute the wine to wholesalers. Gotham Project is debuting a new “return and reuse” bottle program which encourages consumers to return their empty bottles to the point of sale where distributors collect them and bring them back to Gotham Project warehouses to be refilled again. This is a classic vertical integration system that complies with America’s three-tier sales and distribution system. Currently, Gotham Project wines are sold in four states.
Good Goods CEO Zachary Lawless
By contrast, Good Goods, whose founder’s background is in the grab-and-go food business, does not actually produce or sell wine. Rather, it sells its reusable bottles to independent wineries and works to get the bottles back to its washing and sterilization stations. Currently utilizing a dozen producers, it expects to expand to more than 100 retailers in three states by year end.
Good Goods rewards retail customers and restaurants to return or save its bottles with a credit system that incentivizes retailers as well, as the credit can be used to purchase other items in the store. Gotham offers cash awards or contributions to environmental nonprofits.
In spite of his company’s experience with wine in kegs in bars and restaurants, Gotham co-founder Charles Bieler says, “People look to packaging as a sign of quality, and glass remains the wine industry standard. But recycling glass bottles for other uses is a declining market.”
For that same reason, Good Goods CEO Zachary Lawless thinks the use of lightweight bottles – currently a trending practice – is counter-productive because most will end up in landfills. “We have to convince consumers that reusable wine bottles are the product of the future.” So far, he says, 85 percent of the company’s bottles are being returned.
Gotham co-founder Charles Bieler
Both companies also tout studies which show that reusing bottles helps move producers closer to carbon neutrality than does the current recycling system. Both of their bottles are embossed with return and reuse messages and are, as Bieler says, “on the beefier side.” The Gotham bottle weighs 650 grams, while Good Goods is a lighter 450 grams. “Our bottle should be good for up to 30 reuses,” Lawless says. However, to achieve efficiency, labels must be able to be easily removed, in most cases dictating use of water-soluble glue.
Conscious Container, a California company whose goal is “building refillable circular glass economy,” launched a pilot program in 2008 to retrieve, clean and reuse a variety of glass bottles but eventually abandoned that experiment.
Now, Bieler sees Gotham’s next effort as recruiting a regional wine retailer or restaurant chain to partner in marketing and selling the company’s wine, although he says he would consider leasing out parts of the technology to individual wineries. “We don’t want to try to own the category,” Bieler says, and states he welcomes competitors who would help build a robust refillable wine bottle industry.
“For now,” he says, “we’re focused on wines that will be consumed soon after purchase and not collectible wines” to be cellared for future consumption. But Lawless views the category differently. “The cost of the wine shouldn’t matter,” he says, “and we believe more wineries will choose sustainability over esthetics in their packaging.”